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Sniper surrounded on all sides by psychobabble

October 25, 2002|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Somewhere inside the mind of a serial sniper


It's very crowded in here.

And no wonder, for television's minions have spent this month rummaging through the brain of the Washington, D.C., triggerman whose lethal moves and motivations remain baffling even after Thursday morning's wee-hours arrests in connection with the shootings.

Like the case, coverage of it has yielded much more ambiguity than fact, as many in the media set aside their roles as reporters and indulged in guesswork that assumed a life of its own.

Of all the slack conjecture driving coverage of this case, nothing has been more psychedelically absurd than TV's junior Freuds putting on the couch someone they've never met or seen. Rarely have so many with so little to say said so much, from criminal profilers speaking smugly of the sniper's "God complex" to the media's own amateur shrinks blabbing on and on while madly chasing one sniper scenario after another in some of the sloppiest TV journalism in memory.

Meanwhile, it was all sniper nearly all of the time this week, with only rare interludes of other news as police authorities found TV highly useful as a conduit to reach someone they believed to be a murderous shooter.

There have been a few striking exceptions to the media's loose lips, one being the meticulous reporting of CNN's Kelli Arena throughout these weeks of turbulence. Arena, who covers the Department of Justice, was notably circumspect and restrained, for example, when her own network and other 24-hour news channels suffered a Tacoma, Wash., meltdown in the period leading to Thursday morning's arrest of John Allen Muhammad and John Lee Malvo as they slept in their car.

Her most admirable quote: "I don't know."

The confusing Wednesday fiasco began when Seattle stations rolled into a Tacoma neighborhood and fed cable news channels and others live coverage of feds and local cops digging up a backyard, deep into the evening, and making off with a tree stump rumored by TV news to have been used for target practice.

By the sniper? Giving this episode weight was the coverage's crime-busting tone -- although the ultimate outcome of the search remained to be determined -- and extended live chopper footage of a rental truck traveling down a road with a tree stump inside.

Of equal interest were the tree stumps covering the story.

Los Angeles stations swiftly dispatched reporters to Tacoma, one of them KNBC anchor Chuck Henry, who appeared to be having an out-of-body experience on the 11 p.m. news while coughing up uninformed live reports so dense and convoluted as to be unfathomable.

Arena's polar opposite Wednesday night, though, was Shepard Smith, the crescendoing Fox News Channel anchor who quoted Seattle stations as reporting that "the sniper is an American of Hispanic extraction." Smith seemed pretty sure of that himself too. He was even more emphatic when babbling: "It's possible that person is now in custody! It's possible that person is under surveillance! It's possible that person is out there somewhere!" In other words, Smith seemed to be saying, everything was possible.

Now there's a mind to visit.

Instead, as the TV drum roll swelled deafeningly in Tacoma, former FBI profiler Candice DeLong led MSNBC viewers through a tour of "the mind of the sniper." And on CNN, anchor Aaron Brown wondered what the sniper must be "thinking"' if watching the Tacoma search on TV. "His blood pressure is going up," answered forensic psychologist Harley Stock.

The mind-play began much earlier, of course. As in Bill Hemmer's response on CNN to Tuesday's fatal shooting of a bus driver near where earlier sniper attacks had occurred: "In essence, what he's saying is not only can you not catch me, Mr. Policeman, but the Pentagon [whose surveillance planes were circling the area] can't catch me either."

Sniper psycho-chat also floated in from afar, as in criminal profiler Pat Brown informing CBS News from Minneapolis: "This is his entire mission in life. He hasn't had much success before. He wants to go down in [history] as a tarot card killer or something like that."

And ...

"Up next, a look inside the sniper's mind," boomed "Hardball" host Chris Matthews on MSNBC.

On "Larry King Live," meanwhile, "power, ego, narcissism" was the capsule sniper diagnosis of TV host John Walsh, who has somehow emerged as an expert on all crimes. As if having a Vulcan mind meld with the killer, Walsh added in the sniper's voice: "I'm a low life that's never accomplished anything in my life. Now I hold a whole area in fear."

On and on it went, with even Dr. Phil getting in his two cents, courtesy of KNBC, the station that runs his syndicated series. And Joyce Brothers was exhumed for a few sound bites of her own.

Usual media rutabagas aside, some of these TV-launched chin strokers are smart, impressively pedigreed and even could have been right about the sniper. The bigger point is that this was guesswork, not news. And ... they could have been wrong.

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